- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Back on May 20, 1984, Angels pitcher Ron Romanick defeated the Yankees with a three-hit shutout, blanking a lineup that included Omar Moreno, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Steve Kemp, Butch Wynegar and Tim Foli. The same day, a Red Sox rookie named Roger Clemens made his second career start and pitched seven innings in Boston's 5-4 victory over Minnesota, earning his first major league victory.
The date was notable for something else, however: The Red Sox finished the day 17-23; Yankees 16-22. There were tied for last place in the American League East.
Twenty-eight years later, we're there again: The Yankees are 21-20 and the Red Sox 20-21 and the two teams are bringing up the rear of the AL East.
For all the blood, sweat and Internet space analyzing the travails of the Red Sox and their crazy manager and terrible bullpen and golf games, here they are, only one game behind the Yankees after a quarter of the season. I live in the cross-section of Red Sox fans and Yankees fans here in Connecticut and, not surprisingly, Yankees fans enjoyed the whole sloppy spectacle emanating from Fenway.
But, mirror, mirror on the wall: If the Red Sox are in trouble, don't we have to say the same thing about the Yankees?
In fact, right now you can argue the Red Sox have more positives on their ledger.
1. In the wake of the golf fiasco and his poor start against Cleveland on May 10, Josh Beckett delivered a second straight strong outing, throwing 7.2 innings to beat the Phillies 5-1 on Sunday. Yes, those two starts came against the Mariners and Phillies, but he's actually been pretty consistent all season. He had a disastrous first start against Detroit in which he allowed five home runs, but since then he's posted a 3.43 ERA, including the Indians game.
Against the Phillies, Beckett threw 48 of his 103 pitches down in the zone, according to Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information, which led to a season-high 10 ground-ball outs, including two double plays. Beckett was also efficient, as he went to just two three-ball counts among the 30 batters he faced, and relied on his offspeed stuff to put hitters away, throwing just seven fastballs among his 24 two-strike pitches. The Boston rotation is still a work in progress, but you're starting to see some positive signs.
2. Mike Aviles hit his eighth home run and Jarrod Saltalamacchia his seventh on Sunday. Aviles is slugging .497 and Salty .583. Combined with Dustin Pedroia, this gives the Red Sox plenty of power up the middle. Only Orioles shortstops have hit more home runs and only Blue Jays catchers have hit more home runs. The Red Sox have outscored the Yankees by 32 runs -- that's 0.8 runs per game -- and the power from non-conventional positions has been key. While Jacoby Ellsbury's injury means the Red Sox have received little production from center field (the Red Sox are last in the AL in center field OPS), the Red Sox have covered the injuries to Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford. Meanwhile, Adrian Gonzalez is hitting just .272 with three home runs. If anything, there are reasons to suspect the Boston offense could get better from here.
3. Stability in the closer role. Alfredo Aceves had the early blown save against the Tigers and the five-run blow-up against the Yankees on April 21, but he has been solid otherwise with seven straight saves. The bullpen as a whole has been solid in May, following up April's 6.10 ERA with a 1.64 ERA.
This doesn't mean the Red Sox should start printing playoff tickets. They are still 13th in the AL in rotation ERA. But you know what? Yankees starters have been nearly just as bad, allowing just five fewer runs in one more inning. That's just one reason Yankees fans are suddenly very quiet.
1. Since the start of the 2010 season, Mark Teixeira is a .249 hitter. Yes, he's a notorious slow starter, but he's hitting .226/.281/.386. Look, that's what he his now: .250 hitter. There's no reason to expect him to return to the .292 hitter he was in 2009, when he finished second in the AL MVP voting. The low average is one thing, but the biggest concern is the big decline in his walk rate. He had an 11.1 percent walk rate last year, but that's down to 6.9 percent. His strikeout rate is also down, from 16.1 percent to 11.3 percent. Teixeira has been much more aggressive at the plate this year, with his pitches per plate appearances dropping from 4.12 to 3.64. That may not seem like much but that drops him third among first baseman to 20th. He's getting more balls in play, but it's causing a big drop in his OBP and isn't helping his batting average.
Yes, Yankees fans will point to the bronchial inflammation that has bothered him for more than a month (he didn't start Saturday or Sunday) and caused coughing fits and fatigue. That's fair, but doesn't explain the change in approach, unless he's too tired to stand in the batter's box for six pitches at a time. No, there are bigger issues going on here (much has been made about the shifts employed against Teixiera) and it could be that Teixeira is battling some of the same issues as Albert Pujols, figuring out how to compensate for a slower bat.
2. What is Alex Rodriguez these days? He's hitting .270/.368/.399 with just nine extra base-hits (four doubles, five home runs). The good news is he has missed just one game, but there are times when A-Rod looks slow and old. Look, he can still get on base and pop the long ball every now and then, but like Teixeira, it's clear he's not the player he once was. His OPS figures since 2007: 1.067, .965, .933, .847, .823, .767. Is really anything more right now than a $28 million Chase Headley?
3. New York's rotation isn't really in any better shape than Boston's. Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes have combined to allow 29 home runs with a 5.14 ERA over 138.1 innings. Yankee fans may point out that each of those pitchers' xFIPs is lower than their actual ERA (Nova, 3.47 versus 5.69; Kuroda, 4.19 versus 4.50; Hughes, 4.42 versus 5.23) and thus might be expected to improve if their home run rates stabilize to more normal levels. On the other hand, what's happening with them isn't necessarily surprising. Many predicted Nova to regress from his rookie campaign, although his ERA is probably the most likely to drop since his strikeout rate has improved from 5.3 to 9.9.
While Nova may improve, it's also clear he's leaving too many pitches in the middle of the plate. All 10 of the home runs he has surrendered came on pitches in the middle of the strike zone and you can see from the heat map that he's had difficulty keeping the ball down.
Kuroda, meanwhile, went from pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium and the American League. And Hughes just isn't that good; he has made 79 career starts and his ERA as a starter is 4.93. So while CC Sabathia remains as sturdy and steady as ever and Andy Pettitte looked good over the weekend in his second start, this is also a rotation with question marks.
We're only 25 percent through the season, so neither of these teams are out of it, of course. And they're certainly in better shape than 1984 -- that was the year the Tigers started 35-5, so the Yankees and Red Sox were already 16.5 games out of first place on May 20. The Yankees ended up that year at 87-75 and the Red Sox 86-76.
Which team is the better bet moving forward? I look at all the positives for the Yankees -- Derek Jeter's hot start, surprise production from Raul Ibanez (eight home runs), Curtis Granderson proving 2011's power surge wasn't a fluke -- combined with the negatives (Teixeira and A-Rod looking old, Mariano Rivera's injury, a starting rotation that may not improve), and I see a flawed team, certainly one as flawed as the Red Sox.
It makes you wonder: Maybe Red Sox fans will get the last laugh.
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